The Impermanence of Everything and the Preciousness of Life

In Part 1 of his book, The Five Invitations, Frank Ostaseski discusses his first invitation and principle for living, “Don’t Wait”.  Frank, as founder of a hospice and end-of-life carer, has cared for more than a thousand patients during their dying process and death.  In this first part of his book, he highlights the impermanence of everything and the preciousness of each moment of living.   

Frank has been a companion to the deepest grief of friends and relatives of the dying and experienced a depth of vicarious grief that is difficult to conceive – it’s as if the collective grief of others had beset him and brought him to his knees, both physically and metaphorically.  Fortuitously, he was a colleague and friend of Elizabeth Kübler-Ross at the time who supported him in his grief and his work as an end-of-life carer.  Elizabeth developed the classic concept of the five stages of dealing with death and loss in her book On Death and Dying and was also the author of Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief Through the Five Stages of Loss.

The impermanence of everything

If nothing else, the Coronavirus reinforces the impermanence of everything through its pervasive impact on every facet of our daily lives – our home, work location, transportation, schooling and education, shopping, spending, entertainment, health, finances, sport and our very daily interactions and movements.  The on-off nature and varying intensity of imposed restrictions serve to reinforce this message of the changeability of everything.  In these challenging times, we are called to adapt to the unpredictability of our work, our changing home arrangements, the extreme challenge to our health and welfare, and the uncertainty of our income and overall finances.

Without the pandemic, we can still become aware of impermanence – the birth and death cycle for humans, animals and nature.   Relationships end, animals are killed and eaten by other animals in the endless pursuit of food and survival and leaves fall off trees to become life-giving compost for new plant growth.  

The impermanence of everything was brought home to me by two recent incidents.  The first was the disturbing story of a nurse killed suddenly in our city while cycling to work.  Her husband indicated that their day started as normal with a coffee and breakfast together but ended tragically when the nurse was only metres away from her work at the hospital.

The second experience of impermanence occurred when I was walking along the foreshore of Moreton Bay near our home.  I was watching the small fish full of life darting back and forth in the marina when a fast-moving bird dived into the water and retrieved one of the fish for its food – only to be followed by other birds dive-bombing the school of little fish. 

The preciousness of life

Frank describes the process of dying as a “stripping away” of everything including our sense of “self” – our sense of who we think we are and should be, all our roles such as husband/wife, partner, parent, neighbour.  We lose our professional identity, our personal orientation, e.g. as a “people person” and our comparative self-assessment such as well-off or impoverished and successful or an abject failure.  Frank reinforces his view of the inadequacy of the medical model to explain the breadth and depth of the “stripping away” at death.  He maintains that in dying everything is released/dissolved – “the gross physical elements of the body, thoughts, perceptions, feelings, conditioning all dissolving”.  Frank asserts that what is left to discover is “something more elemental and connective” that constitutes the real essence of human nature.

Our awareness of impermanence, accentuated by illness, can lead to anxiety or a readiness to appreciate and savour the preciousness of life, of our relationships and of nature.   Through appreciating the pervasiveness of impermanence, we can more readily accept change and more willingly give up our attachments – the things that we hold onto to define our self and our worth.   This is where meditation can help us both in fully living and preparing for dying and death.

The “Don’t Wait” principle reminds us of the certainty of death and the uncertainty of the timing of our death – that it will happen, but we don’t know when or how.  This principle encourages us to value every moment we are alive and to savour what we have in life and the experiences of living.  Frank’s heart attack reinforced this message for him – his sense of self and perception of himself as the “strong one” helping everyone else in need was completely undone.  He encourages us to be curious about ourselves and our preferences/attitudes/ biases and to work at letting go of the identities that we have become attached to.

 Frank maintains that “softening around these identities, we will feel less constraint, more immediacy and presence”.  I am learning the profound truth of this statement through softening my identification with being a “good” tennis player who never or rarely makes mistakes.  Instead of wallowing in negative self-evaluation, I am beginning to enjoy the freedom of progressively loosening this unsustainable identification as I grow older and less physically able.

Reflection

Frank’s book would have to be the easiest and most-engrossing personal development book I have had the privilege to read, and, at the same time, the most profound.  As someone who has had a deep interest in, and knowledge of, his subject, he can communicate his ideas in simple language and practical illustrations.  Each paragraph contains exquisite morsels of wisdom and the book is replete with moving but brief stories that impress indelibly – so, even if you don’t remember the exact wording of his principles, you certainly remember the stories that illustrate them.  Frank’s writing reflects the calmness, humility and depth of insight and wisdom that is evident in his many conversations and podcast interviews about the process of dying and “The Five Invitations”.

“Don’t Wait” is a challenging principle but Coronavirus has forced us to stop, reassess and protect ourselves and others.  It has been the catalyst for incredible acts of courage and kindness – by our health professionals and people from all walks of life.  The Pandemic Kindness group on Facebook©, with over half a million members, is but one of many efforts to encourage and support random acts of kindness in these challenging times.

The “Don’t Wait” principle incorporates many invitations to create change in our lives.  As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and reflection, we can become increasingly aware of our attachments (including to harmful self-narratives) and progressively develop the discipline and self-regulation to create real change in our lives to live with more appreciation, thoughtfulness, kindness and compassion.  We can learn to savour every moment of our life and everything that it entails.

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Image by christels from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Christmas: A Time for Kindness and Reflection

Christmas is a time for kindness and reflection. It brings out the kindness in people of all persuasions and provides a time to reflect on the year that has almost passed, as we count down the days to the end of the year.

A time for kindness

Christmas seems to bring out the best in many people – thoughtfulness of others and kindness towards to those who are less fortunate. I recall last year being in Bologna and watching a group of young people moving around the streets on Christmas Eve singing songs to homeless people and offering them gifts. This thoughtful action brought smiles to the faces of people who received this kindness, particularly as they sat huddled in blankets on a cold night approaching zero degrees.

Christmas is a time when families get together and share gifts, when mothers shop with their adult daughters and children wait with gleeful anticipation. It is really a time of giving not only of gifts but also time – time for others whether family, friends or those in need. Christmas is very much a testament to the human heart.

It is also a time to be mindful of others when we are driving in traffic, pressed for that parking space in the shopping centre, and queuing for high demand public transport or taxi/Uber services. It’s a time to take a break from the hurly-burly of the festive season and get in touch with our breathing and appreciate the many things we have to express gratitude for. We have only to think of people less fortunate than ourselves, e.g. experiencing loneliness at Christmas, to realise how much we have to be grateful for. There is so much that we take for granted in our daily lives.

A time for reflection

As we reflect on our past year, we can ask ourselves, “What have we done that contributes to our own mindfulness and that of others we interact with?” Have we been able to maintain a regular form of meditation, mindfulness practice or activity such as Tai Chi or yoga?

I know for myself it is easy to read about mindfulness and to write about it, but it is another thing to maintain regular mindfulness practice. It is difficult to sustain such practices in the face of daily pressures from work, family or the community generally. It pays at times like Christmas to reflect on our practice and identify ways to better maintain our chosen technique(s) for building mindfulness. The benefits can extend to every facet of our lives.

Christmas is a time to reflect in terms of what we have done to share the benefits of mindfulness with others who we come into contact with, either informally or more formally through workshops and training activities. If we have developed the gift of mindfulness, how can we best share this with others who are in need of its benefits – because of mental health issues, stress or time/work pressures?

As we grow in mindfulness, we can more readily extend thoughtfulness and kindness to others, reflect on what we are grateful for in our lives and seek ways to share the benefits of mindfulness with others. Sustaining our mindfulness practice provides the foundation for this growth in internal and external awareness.

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By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Image source: courtesy of agnessatalalaevO on Pixabay

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Mindfulness for Overcoming Resentment

Resentment towards another person, organisation or group can hold us captive and lead us to give away control of our emotions to others.  It also has the ability to linger and smoulder long after the initial catalyst has passed or even been forgotten.

Our resentment may flow from someone or a group that has frustrated our expectations or impeded our goals or done something that we experienced as harmful to us personally.  Unless we let it go and dissolve its power, resentment can eat away at us and negatively impact our quality of life and the quality of our relationships.

Overcoming resentment through mindfulness

There are several mindfulness practices that can help us to let go of resentment.  Here are three processes:

Forgiveness Meditation

Forgiveness meditation is one way to use mindfulness to overcome resentment towards a person and has proven to build understanding and empathy.  It is designed to replace resentment with thoughtfulness and loving kindness

Dealing with conflict

During a two-day course on mindful leadership conducted by the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute, I learned a process that related to conflict resolution but was also designed to build understanding and tolerance of others and to dissolve the blocking effects of resentment.  As part of the process, you had to reflect on the conflict incident and put yourself in the place of the other person with whom you had a conflict and towards whom you felt some resentment.

The conflict process acknowledges that for both parties in a conflict there are three levels of issues at play – (1) content, (2) feelings & (3) identity.  So when you begin to reflect mindfully on what is happening for the other person, you ask the following questions from their perspective:

  1. Content (What happened from their perspective?)
  2. Feelings (How do I think they felt?)
  3. Identity (What might have been at stake for them in terms of their sense of competence, their thoughts about their own goodness and lovability?)

By reflecting mindfully about what was going on for the person in the conflict that we felt some resentment towards, we can experience the resentment dissolving and empathy replacing it. As we ask ourselves the same questions, we can begin to realise that we are all very human and that we misunderstand each other and make mistakes which we may later regret.

Being mindful of the potential damaging effects of resentment

If we are able to get in touch with our feelings at a point in time and name our feelings as resentment, we can reflect on what that feeling is doing to us both bodily and emotionally.  If we focus on these damaging effects and project them into the long-term, we will come to realise that we have to let the resentment go and move on, just as Khaled Hosseini described.

Khaled, in his book A Thousand Splendid Suns, has one of his lead characters, Laila, refuse to give into resentment:

But Laila has decided she will not be crippled by resentment.  Mariam wouldn’t want it that way.  What’s the sense? she would say, with a smile both innocent and wise.  What good is it, Laila Jo?  And so Laila has resigned herself to moving on. (p.399)

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and reflection, we come to realise the damaging power and hold of resentment and to learn ways to overcome it.  In the process, we can develop understanding of, and empathy for, others.

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Image source: courtesy of Kasya on Pixabay

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.